After the pleasant, entertaining and soothingly nostalgic experience of re-reading My Family and Other Animals, I thought I would go for a very different kind of book next. And boy! is The Crying of Lot 49 a very different kind of book!

In fact, I do not really know how to begin to describe it. Let me see… Well, in one sense it is a story about a lady called Oedipa Maas, who discovers that a wealthy ex-boyfriend has died and made her a co-executor of his estate. In order to fulfill this duty, Oedipa begins to look into the business affairs of the late man (Pierce Inverarity), and in doing so starts to unearth a trail of information that possibly points to there being an underground postal delivery service.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

This quest leads Oedipa down some very strange paths. At one point she meets Manny di Presso, a lawyer who is suing the Inverarity estate on behalf of his client, who recovered and sold human bones to Inverarity but apparently never received proper payment. (The human bones, it transpires, were wanted to make charcoal for cigarette filters. Obviously.)

Oedipa also finds herself tangled up with a good-looking chap named Metzger, who is an ex-child television actor, and a Beatleseque group called The Paranoids, who are all mop-haired Americans, who sing with pronounced British accents. Then there is Oedipa’s psychiatrist, Dr. Hilarius; the great stamp expert, Genghis Cohen; and another chap named Mike Fallopian, who our protagonist meets in a bar, and who provides Oedipa with more information, such as about the existence of The Peter Pinguid Society.

Confused? I certainly was. But things begin to get really complicated when one of The Paranoids points out the strange similarity between these unfolding events and the plot of a 17th-century play called The Courier’s Tragedy.

This lurid Jacobean revenge play, when not showcasing gruesome torture scenes, seems to be somehow tied up with a centuries-old conflict between two mail distribution companies: Thurn and Taxis on the one hand, and Trystero on the other. As Oedipa digs further into this strange mystery, she begins to meet others who seem to be in some way connected with this unofficial mail service, and even discovers that it has a secret symbol (the muted post horn) and a network of disguised post boxes seemingly scattered throughout America.

There are plenty more characters and plot detours and details in this sprawling, loose text, but I shan’t mention much more. Well, I won’t mention much more other than the fact that almost everything may not be as it seems. That is, that Oedipa Mass herself at several points in the story questions the reality of all of these strange elements and, in turn, questions her own sanity.

Basically, this is the kind of postmodern text where pretty much everything is up for grabs and open to interpretation. I did enjoy reading this novella, although I am also quite looking forward to reading something slightly less convoluted for my next read.

Meaning of the title: the title refers of the sale at auction of the deceased man’s stamp collection (which happens to be lot 49). This collection may or may not hold the key to the whole Trystero mystery.

Trivia about the author: Thomas Pynchon is a famous recluse. He has not given any interviews for years and years and only a handful of photos of him are known to exist.

Standout quote: “Shall I project a world?”

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, which is not quite as off-the-wall, but does interweave various incongruous storylines and plays with multiple meanings. John Fowles’ great novel The Magus is also fantastic if you enjoy a gripping mystery.